A Site of Struggle: Opening Conversation [Video]

Originating at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, A Site of Struggle explores how artists have engaged with the reality of anti-Black violence and its accompanying challenges of representation in the United States over a 100+ year period. 

On Saturday, January 29 over 200 guests joined The Block Museum online for a conversation to mark the opening of this exhibition.

Opening speakers included Courtney R. Baker, scholar of Black literary and visual cultures and author of Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African-American Suffering and DeathDino Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston; and Carl and Karen Pope, exhibition artists. They were joined in conversation by Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and curator of A Site of Struggle, and together considered how the exhibition explores intersections of race, violence, visual culture, and history, and what the arts can bring to a national conversation about racial justice.

Robin R. Means Coleman, Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion; Chief Diversity Officer; Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Barnett Professor in Communication Studies, and Natasha Trethewey, Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University and former United States Poet Laureate, provided opening and closing remarks.

Watch the Opening

The exhibition is a result of six years of research and planning, yet for some, it may seem as if it was a response to the most current events. The exhibition is opening in the wake of the summer of 2020 when the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a national reckoning with the persistence of racialized violence. For many of this current generation, the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2013 was another such inflection points, followed by the murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and many others.

For an earlier generation, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 was likewise such an inflection point. The consistent recurrence of these atrocities has been matched by consistent critical engagement by artists and the development of visual strategies to grapple with the reality of racial violence. This is a history that is important to understanding American history, as well as a particularities of the African American experience. To this end, A Site of Struggle presents a prehistory or rather a pre art history of our present moment. Chronologically, it is framed by the rise of anti-lynching activism and the post reconstruction era and the founding of Black Lives Matter in 2013, An effort to put contemporary debates about presentation of this violence into a historical context.

A Site of Struggle addresses the persistence of racial violence in the United States, and through the lens of artistic expression, contextualizes contemporary struggles with racial violence within a wider and deeper history. During the process of developing A Site of Struggle, I have constantly been reminded that struggle connotes, not only conflict, but also a sustained and determined effort under great difficulty. Many of the artists discussed above have struggled with the history of racial violence in this country, and their artworks are an invitation for us to do the same.

Art can provide a moment of pause, an opportunity for us to sit with the complex, and deep rooted nature of anti-black violence, and contemplate how it impacts us individually, and as a society. In these works, we may find recognition of our own suffering, which is important in and of itself as well as a provocation to continue or begin for the first time striving to eliminate this suffering through concrete actions appropriate to our positionality. By highlighting the ways in which American artists have wrestled with the challenges posed by representation in order to protest, process, mourn, and memorialize anti-Black violence A Site of Struggle is a modest offering in the ongoing struggle for the preservation and flourishing of Black life.

Janet Dees, Curator of A Site of Struggle

Opening Day Credits

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